Visitors to Carroll County often expect to be welcomed by gently rolling farmland as green as the Emerald Isle, but motorists crossing the border on Route 140 from Baltimore County into Finksburg are more likely to be bombarded by huge billboards advertising everything from holiday candy and liquor to construction companies and cigarettes.
Concerned about the county's image, the Carroll commissioners have asked a committee of residents , town officials and business leaders to study the visual impact of the county's entry points and recommend ways to spruce them up.
"We've asked the committee to look at all of the gateways - Mount Airy, Hampstead, Sykesville and Union Bridge - not just Finksburg," said Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge. "We'd like to enhance the county's appearance by coordinating signs and storefronts, but we can't as a government just go in and tell people what they need to do to make the area better. It's better to get business leaders and the community involved in deciding what they want."
Commissioner Donald I. Dell, a strong advocate of property rights, said, "I feel it's very important to get the business community's input, because they are the ones who are going to have to make many of these improvements. They will be the ones who are impacted financially by this."
The commissioners have asked the committee to submit a report to them by Sept. 1. It will be reviewed by the county Economic Development Commission and the local Chamber of Commerce before the board acts on any of the committee's suggestions, Gouge said. The panel's first meeting is scheduled for Thursday.
"It's my hope that we will be able to formulate an approach to greatly remove the impact of the visual clutter coming into our county," said Finksburg resident Donald E. Hoffman, who will serve on the gateway committee. "I'm looking forward to working with the business community on this issue."
Carroll County has 356 billboards. In Maryland, only Prince George's County and Baltimore have more outdoor advertisements than does Carroll, a mostly rural county with a population of about 150,000, according to State Highway Administration officials.
In recent years, the appearance of Carroll's main arteries - particularly Route 140 in Finksburg and Route 26 in Eldersburg - has stirred a spirited debate between residents who want to beautify the roads and local merchants who say they can't afford to make costly improvements.
Finksburg residents, responding to a recent county survey, said they would like the community to maintain its rural character. They want fewer billboards, preservation of farmland and construction of a public library branch.
In South Carroll, residents have demanded improvements to Route 26, which many regard as the area's downtown. The proposed blueprint for growth along the county's southern strip calls for the creation of a "boulevard district," which would set architectural guidelines for businesses requiring the use of certain street signs, building facades and certain types of shrubs.
"Anything we can do to spruce up the entryways would be great for tourism," said county tourism director Barbara Beverungen. "It would make Carroll seem much more welcoming."